White Ignorance Is Bliss—and Power
The people demanding legally mandated ignorance now are probably ignorant of the long, racist tradition they’re a part of.
Hell hath no fury like a white conservative confronted with the unvarnished history of slavery and racism in America.
For nearly two solid years, right-wing reactionaries have been apoplectic over the 1619 Project, a journalistic exploration of the indelible impact of Black enslavement on these United States put together by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The same angry mob has also attacked a heretofore obscure, four-decades-old analytical methodology for understanding the institutionalism of white supremacy and anti-Black racism called Critical Race Theory.
The white conservative rage has been prolific, producing two House bills seeking to ban CRT and other “anti-American and racist theories” along with legislation in about a dozen states. The Trump administration put out its own 1776 Report, meant to “correct” the 1619 Project—which the American Historical Association called “simplistic” and full of “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” Now the mob is vilifying Pulitzer Prize-winner Hannah-Jones, getting the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to cravenly retract a tenured position offer, replacing it with a five-year professor of practice contract.
All of these efforts obviously aim to re-center the white supremacist historical fable that roughly 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow were unfortunate—but inconsequential—events in an America of full equality of opportunity, where any difference between the races could only be a result of Black laziness and white superiority. That fairy tale speaks volumes about how desperately reliant white supremacy is on maintaining white ignorance. You just can’t have one without the other. It’s that embrace of ignorance that lets these racists ignore the long tradition of mandated white ignorance they’re now trying to extend into the future.
“White ignorance,” according to NYU philosopher Charles W. Mills, is an “inverted epistemology,” a deep dedication to and investment in non-knowing that explains white supremacy’s highly curatorial (and often oppositional) approach to memory, history and the truth. While white ignorance is related to the anti-intellectualism that defines the white Republican brand, it should be regarded as yet more specific. According to Mills, white ignorance demands a purposeful misunderstanding of reality—both present and historical—and then treats that fictitious world-view as the singular, de-politicized, unbiased, “objective” truth. “One has to learn to see the world wrongly,” under the terms of white ignorance, Mills writes, “but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority.”
To challenge that epistemic authority with uncomfortable but verifiable facts about race and racism guarantees the wrath of those who are otherwise quick to claim “facts don’t care about your feelings.” The 1619 Project has required tweaks and corrections. But the wholesale discounting of the initiative by white conservatives, who ignored the sloppy, error-filled 1776 Report, is more than a classic display of hypocrisy. It’s a testament to how deeply critical white ignorance is to white supremacy.
In reality—not the manicured “reality” of white supremacist historical delusion, but bonafide existence—historical fact has always hurt the feelings of white supremacists. In response, they have consistently used self-serving lies of omission to make themselves feel better. Were they less averse to historical truth, today’s white conservatives might already know this.
They’d perhaps be aware that the United Daughters of the Confederacy—the white Southern ladies group that put up most Confederate monuments, including one explicitly lauding the Ku Klux Klan—released a 1919 manifesto in all but name demanding “all authorities charged with the selection of textbooks for colleges, schools and all scholastic institutions” across the South only accept books depicting the Confederacy glowingly. Conversely, those books that correctly identified Confederate soldiers as traitors or rebels, rightly located slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, depicted the figure of the “slaveholder as cruel or unjust to his slaves,” or “glories Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis,” were to be rejected. The UDC ordered school librarians to deface books that were insufficiently praiseful of the Confederacy by scrawling "Unjust to the South” on the title page. Well into the 1970s, these rules dictated the history lessons taught to Southern children, both Black and white. The group’s rewriting of history to make slavery benign, Black resistance invisible, and white terror no biggie—also known as the ahistorical Lost Cause myth—is being re-engineered for this moment.
Modern complaints about so-called “cancel culture” and political correctness are also linked to white ignorance, allowing the know-nothings who wield it to deny the harms of whiteness while turning themselves into victims of overly aggressive Black declarations of personhood. Across the 1940s and ’50s, the NAACP campaigned to purge racist language from history books, targeting passages that extolled the KKK and references to enslaved Black folks as happy “Sambos.” In response, the Washington Post dismissed their concerns as “humorless touchiness,” an old-timey way of calling them snowflakes. One WaPo editorial stated that to “insist that Negroes be given equal rights with other citizens is one thing. To insist that their particular sensibilities entitle them to exercise a kind of censorship is quite another."
It took the longest student strike in U.S. history, held in 1968 at San Francisco State College, to finally get collegiate ethnic studies, which have been under attack ever since. To wit, in 2010, Arizona legally banned Mexican American Studies until a judge forced the state to overturn the unconstitutional policy, while the perennial fight over textbook history in Texas led to textbooks that in 2015 featured a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” stating “the Atlantic slave trade from the 1500s to the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” In addition to a bill to prohibit the teaching of the 1619 Project currently making its way through the Texas legislature, conservatives in the state are trying to ensure minimal mention of slavery or anti-Mexican discrimination in textbooks and pushing legislation to create an 1836 Project to “promote patriotic education.”
“Do you want our Texas kids to be taught that the system of government in the United States and Texas is nothing but a cover-up for white supremacy?” State legislator Steve Toth reportedly asked his Congressional colleagues.
And here, Toth is doing what white conservatives actually do with surprising frequency, which is screaming the supposedly quiet part. It’s an admission that by merely telling the whole story and including all the facts, the long and carefully maintained narrative of white innocence—a kind of perpetual white alibi—is disrupted. White ignorance is basically just a “refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with the differential resources they have today” creating a fake “equal status and a common history in which all have shared, with white privilege being conceptually erased.” The intentional know-nothingness of white ignorance “serves to neutralize demands for antidiscrimination initiatives or for a redistribution of resources.” Instead, it holds that “the real racists are the Blacks who continue to insist on the importance of race.”
So we have Florida Gov. Ron Desantis declaring the 1619 Project is “basically teaching kids to hate our country and to hate each other based on race,” and Tom Cotton, who performatively introduced a bill last year to ban the 1619 Project in schools, complaining the initiative paints the U.S. as “a systemically racist country” instead of “a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal.” Earlier this month, during a press conference for the Stop Critical Race Theory Act, co-sponsor Dan Bishop called the academic theory “a smokescreen for racism” and a “divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche.” Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who of course was also there added, “These are the things that we overcame in the civil rights era and I’m so proud that we did.”
White conservatives only get real into anti-racism lip service when the reality of white racism threatens to blow up their spot. That’s surely why in April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona labeling the 1619 Project “activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.”
“My view—and I think most Americans think—dates like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Civil War are sort of the basic tenets of American history,” McConnell said in remarks earlier this month. “There are a lot of exotic notions about what are the most important points in American history. I simply disagree with the notion that the New York Times laid out there that the year was one of those years. I think that issue that we all are concerned about—racial discrimination—it was our original sin. We’ve been working for 200-and-some-odd years to get past it. We’re still working on it, and I just simply don’t think that’s part of the core underpinning of what American civic education ought to be about.”
That sure is a long-winded way of advising folks to stick to the white supremacist storyline. McConnell is unwittingly offering an example of how, as Charles Eagles writes, “the powerful can make decisions that actually “strive for a goal of stupidity,” rather than for genuine education. Under the guise of protecting children, imposing an engineered ignorance protects the privileged by preserving the status quo and by releasing leaders from responsibility… Too much knowledge could lead to troubling questions and a loss of control of the classroom, and the elite feared the unknown results.”
The price for not adhering to those rules is that white conservatives (give it up for The Real Kings of Cancel Culture, everybody!) will do all they can to have you blackballed, legally banned, discredited and defamed. Jay Schalin, of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a right-wing think tank that led the charge against Hannah-Jones, maligned the 1619 Project as mere “political agitation”—inadvertently suggesting he already knows the horrors of American slavery and racism are reasons to be furious. Schalin and his co-conspirators, to protect white ignorance, went after Hannah-Jones. It all brings to mind yet more ignored history, cited by Mills, about how the terms of enslavement included that “Blacks were generally denied the right to testify against whites, because they were not seen as credible witnesses, so when the only (willing) witnesses to white crimes were Black, these crimes would not be brought to light… Moreover, in many cases, even if witnesses would have been given some kind of grudging hearing, they were terrorized into silence by the fear of white retaliation.”
Silence was the end goal then, and it’s the goal now, as a means of preserving white ignorance—which is to say plausible deniability. But the work of Hannah-Jones and folks like Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of CRT (and so much more) are undoing myths that are difficult to perfectly assemble without the cracks showing.
“If Black testimony could be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be false,” Mills notes, “it could also be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be true.”